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Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major
Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore (Italian)
Basilica Sanctae Mariae Majoris ad Nives (Latin)

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest church in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary

Basic information
Location Template:Country data VAT Rome
Geographic coordinates 41°53′51″N 12°29′55″E / 41.8975°N 12.49861°E / 41.8975; 12.49861Coordinates: 41°53′51″N 12°29′55″E / 41.8975°N 12.49861°E / 41.8975; 12.49861
Affiliation Roman Catholic
Ecclesiastical status Major basilica
Leadership Bernard Cardinal Law
Website Official Website
Architectural description
Architectural type Church
Direction of facade SE
Length 92 metres (300 ft)
Width 80 metres (260 ft)
Width (nave) 30 metres (98 ft)
Height (max) 75 metres (250 ft)

The Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major (Italian: Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore, Latin: Basilica Sanctae Mariae Majoris ad Nives[1][2]), is an ancient Roman Catholic Marian basilica of Rome. It is one of the four major or four papal basilicas,[3] which, together with St. Lawrence outside the Walls, were formerly referred to as the five "patriarchal basilicas" of Rome [4], associated with the five ancient patriarchal sees of Christendom (see Pentarchy). The other three papal or major basilicas are St. John Lateran, St. Peter and St. Paul outside the Walls. The Liberian Basilica (another title for the church) is one of the tituli, presided over by a patron—in this case Pope Liberius—that housed the major congregations of early Christians in Rome. Santa Maria Maggiore is the only Roman basilica that retained the core of its original structure, left intact despite several additional construction projects and damage from the earthquake of 1348.

The name of the church reflects two ideas of greatness ("major"), that of a major (or papal) basilica and that of the largest (major) church in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

After the Avignon papacy formally ended and the Papacy returned to Rome, the Basilica became a temporary Palace of the Popes due to the deteriorated state of the Lateran Palace. The papal residence was later moved to the Palace of the Vatican in what is now Vatican City.


Pope Liberius commissioned circa 360 the construction of the Liberian Basilica on the summit of the Esquiline Hill[5]. According to the founding legend, which cannot be traced farther back than the thirteenth century,[6] he wanted a shrine built at the site where an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary manifested herself in identical dreams shared by a local patrician and his wife and by the pope. According to tradition, the outline of the church was physically laid out on the ground of the noble's property by Liberius himself under a miraculous but predicted snowfall that took place on the night August 4-5 352.[7] The legendary Miracle of the Snow was depicted by Masaccio and Masolino about 1423 in a triptych commissioned by a member of the Colonna family for the Basilica, now conserved in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.[8] In it the miracle is witnessed by a crowd of holy men and women and observed from above by Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Snows, local Roman Catholics commemorate the miracle on each anniversary by dropping white rose petals from the dome during the mass of the feast.

Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura*
UNESCO World Heritage Site
State Party Template:Flag and Flag of the Vatican City.svg Holy See
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii, iii, iv, vi
Reference 91
Region** Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1980  (4th Session)
Extensions 1990
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.


The precise location of that first church has been lost. The present building dates from the time of Pope Sixtus III (432 - 440) and contains many ancient mosaics from this period. Its form so exactly follows the conventions of an imperial basilica it has at times been taken for one.[9] The Athenian marble columns supporting the nave are even older, and either come from the first basilica, or from another antique Roman building; thirty-six are marble and four granite, pared down, or shortened to make them identical by Ferdinando Fuga, who provided them with identical gilt-bronze capitals.[10] The fourteenth century campanile, or bell tower, is the highest in Rome, at 240 feet, (about 75 m.). The basilica's 16th-century coffered ceiling, to a design by Giuliano da Sangallo, is said to be gilded with Inca gold presented by Ferdinand and Isabella to the Spanish pope Alexander VI (something which factually is erroneous, since the Inca empire was conquered during the reign of Charles V). The apse mosaic, the Coronation of the Virgin, is from 1295, signed by the Franciscan friar, Jacopo Torriti. The Basilica also contains frescoes by Giovanni Baglione, in the Cappella Borghese.

The Piazza dell'Esquilino with the apse area of Santa Maria Maggiore.

The facade in an etching by Giuseppe Vasi, circa 1740.

The Piazza and Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, by Giovanni Paolo Pannini

The Borghese (or Pauline) Chapel

The 12th-century façade has been masked by a reconstruction, with a screening loggia, that were added by Pope Benedict XIV in 1743, to designs by Ferdinando Fuga that did not damage the mosaics of the façade. The wing of the canonica (sacristy to its left and a matching wing to the right (designed by Flaminio Ponzio) give the basilica's front the aspect of a palace facing Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore. To the right of the Basilica's façade is a memorial representing a column in the form of an up-ended cannon barrel topped with a cross: it was erected by Pope Clement VIII immediately after the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestants, though today it is reputed to celebrate the end of the French Wars of Religion [1].

The Marian column erected in 1614, to designs of Carlo Maderno is the model for numerous Marian columns erected in Catholic countries in thanksgiving for remission of the plague during the Baroque era. (An example is the Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc, the Czech Republic). The column itself is the sole remaining from Constantine's Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine in Campo Vaccino, as the Roman Forum was called until the 18th century[2]; Maderno's fountain at the base combines the armorial eagles and dragons of Paul V.


In the centuries that have passed, the weather has been Santa Maria Maggiore's biggest rival. The pollution of a modern city combined with humidity puts at risk the old churches and the artwork they hold. Centuries before the first vehicle spewed exhaust into the city, during the late sixteenth century, a number of the Vatican's churches were renovated and redecorated. The basilica itself was restored and extended by various popes, including Eugene III (1145-1153), Nicholas IV (1288-92), Clement X (1670-76), and Benedict XIV (1740-58), who in the 1740s commissioned Ferdinando Fuga to build the present façade and to modify the interior. The interior of the Santa Maria Maggiore underwent a broad renovation encompassing all of its altars between the years 1575 and 1630.


List of major works of art in the basilica

  • Early Christian mosaic cycle depicting Old Testament events, 5th century
  • The Salus Populi Romani, a much venerated early icon of the Virgin and Child.
  • Funerary monument of Clement IX (1671) by Carlo Rainaldi with the papal bust is by Domenico Guidi.
  • Temporary catafalque for Philip IV of Spain designed in 1665 by Rainaldi
  • Funerary monument of Pope Nicholas IV, designed by Domenico Fontana in 1574.
  • Bust of Costanzo Patrizi by Algardi.
  • Sacristy frescoes by Passignano and Giuseppe Puglia,
  • Saint Cajetan holding the Holy Child, by Bernini.
  • High altar sculpture by Pietro Bracci, (c. 1750).
  • Bust of Pius IX (1880) by Ignazio Jacometti.
  • Pauline Chapel frescoes, by Guido Reni
  • Frescoes for the monument of Clement VIII, Lanfranco
  • Cesi Chapel tombs by Guglielmo della Porta
  • Altar, confessio and Presepio (crib) sculptures by Arnolfo di Cambio, about 1290

The Capella Sistina and the Crypt of the Nativity

Below the sanctuary of Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is the Crypt of the Nativity or the Bethlehem Crypt, which is the burial place for prominent Catholics, including Saint Jerome, the 4th century Doctor of the Church who translated the Bible into the Latin language (the Vulgate); popes; and Gianlorenzo Bernini. Saint Ignatius of Loyola presided over his first mass as a priest on this altar on December 25, 1538 (previously below the central main altar).

The decoration of the Sistine chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore, which should not be confused with the more famous Sistine chapel of the Vatican, was commissioned by the administration of Pope Sixtus V. The architect Domenico Fontana was called to design the chapel to house the presumptive relics of the Nativity crib. The original Nativity Oratory, with the presepe built in the XIII century by Arnolfo di Cambio, is below the chapel. The chapel contains the tombs of Sixtus V and his early patron Pius V (design by Fontana and statue by Leonardo Sarzana). The statue of Sixtus V was sculpted by Giovanni Antonio Paracca, called il Valsoldo. The main altar in the Chapel has four gilded bronze angels by Sebastiano Torregiani, along the ciborium.

The Mannerist interior decoration was completed (1587-9) by a large team of artists, directed by Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra. While the art biographer, Giovanni Baglione allocates specific works to individual artists, recent scholarship finds that the hand of Nebbia drew preliminary sketches for many, if not all, of the frescoes. Baglione also concedes the roles of Nebbia and Guerra could be summarized as "Nebbia drew, and Guerra supervised the teams".

Painter Work
Giovanni Battista Pozzo Angelic Glory, Visitation, Annunciation, Joseph’s dream, St. Paul & John Evangelist, St. Peter enters Rome,& Massacre of infants
Lattanzio Mainardi Tamar, Fares, Zara, Solomon, & Boaz
Hendrick van den Broeck (Arrigo Fiammingo) Esrom, Aram, Aminabad & Naassom
Paris Nogari Ruth, Jesse, David, Solomon & Roboam; & the Holy Family
Giacomo Stella Jehoshaphat & Jehoram, Jacob, Judah & his brothers, Sacrifice of Isacc
Angiolo Nebbia Ozias & Jonathan, Abiud and Eliacim, Manassah and Amon, Josiah and Jechonia, Salatiele & Zorobabel
Salvatore Fontana Jacob, Eli, Eliezer and Nathan, Herod orders massacre of the innocents, Annunciation
Cesare Nebbia Chaziel & Ezekias, Sadoch, Achim, Amoz
Ercole from Bologna Flight from Egypt" and "Mary visits Elisabeth's house
Andrea Lilio Magi before Herod

Others include Ferdinando Sermei, Giacomo Stella, Paul Bril, and Ferraù Fenzoni.[11]


A series of articles on
Roman Catholic

Raphael - Madonna dell Granduca.jpg

General articles
Overview of Mariology
Veneration of the Blessed VirginHistory of Mariology

Expressions of devotion

Specific articles
ApparitionsSaintsPopesDogmas and DoctrinesMovements & Societies

Salus Populi Romani

Salus Populi Romani, perhaps the oldest Marian image in Rome.

The column in the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore celebrates the famous icon of the Virgin Mary in the Borghese or Pauline Chapel of the Basilica. It is known as Salus Populi Romani, or Health of the Roman People, due to a miracle in which the icon helped keep plague from the city. The icon is at least a thousand years old, and tradition holds that it was painted from life by St Luke the Evangelist. (According to published material at the Basilica, radiocarbon dating establishes the age of the icon to be approximately 2,000 years, thus reinforcing its sacred tradition.)

The Salus Populi Romani has been a favorite of several Popes and acted as a key Mariological symbol. Roman born Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) celebrated his first Holy Mass there on April 1, 1899. In 1953, the icon was carried through Rome to initiate the first Marian year in Church history. In 1954, the icon was crowned by Pope Pius XII as he introduced a new Marian feast Queenship of Mary. Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI all honoroured the Salus Populi Romani with personal visits and liturgical celebrations.

Papal basilica

As papal basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore is often personally used by the pope. Most notably, the pope presides over the annual Feast of the Assumption of Mary, celebrated each August 15 at the basilica. The canopied high altar is used by the pope alone — except for a choice few priests including the archpriest. The pope gives charge of Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore to an archpriest, usually an archbishop made cardinal in consistory. The archpriest was formerly the titular Latin Patriarch of Antioch, a title abolished in 1964.

The current archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is Cardinal Bernard Francis Law; John Paul II assigned Law to this position after his resignation as Archbishop of Boston on December 13, 2002, in an act that elicited much criticism, given the fact that Law was arguably one of the most controversial Church officials in the United States. It was in his archdiocese that the 2002 scandal initially erupted.

In addition to the archpriest and his servant priests, a chapter of canons are resident in Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. In addition, Redemptorist and Dominican priests serve the church daily — hearing confessions and administering other sacraments.

Archpriests of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore since 1127

List of archpriests of the Liberian Basilica since 1127[12]. Initially not all archpriests were cardinals

  • Rainiero (attested 1127-1130)
  • Matteo (attested 1153)
  • Paolo Scolari (attested 1176–1187)
  • Rolando (attested 1189-1193)
  • Pietro Sasso (attested 1212)[13]
  • Romano (attested 1222)
  • Astor (attested 1244)
  • Pietro Capocci (?) (named in 1245?)[14]
  • Romano (attested 1258)
  • Ottobono Fieschi (1262-1276)
  • Giacomo Colonna (1288-1297)
  • Francesco Napoleone Orsini (1297-1312)
  • Giacomo Colonna (again) (1312-1318)
  • Pietro Colonna (1318-1326)
  • Nicola Capocci (ca.1350-1368)
  • Pierre Roger de Beaufort (1368-1370)
  • Marino Giudice (ca.1383-1385)
  • Marino Bulcani (1385-1394)
  • Stefano Palosio (1394-1396)
  • Enrico Minutoli (1396-1412)
  • Rinaldo Brancaccio (1412-1427)
  • Francesco Lando (1427)
  • Jean de la Rochetaille (1428-1437)
  • Antonio Casini (1437-1439)
  • Giovanni Viteleschi (1439-1440)
  • Nicola Albergati (1440-1443)
  • Guillaume d'Estouteville (1443-1483)
  • Rodrigo Borgia (1483-1492)
  • Giovanni Battista Savelli (1492-1498)
  • Giovanni Battista Orsini (1498-1503)
  • Giuliano Cesarini iuniore (1503-1510)
  • Pedro Luis Borja Lanzol de Romani (1510-1511)
  • Robert Guibe (1511)
  • Francisco de Remolins (1511-1518)
  • Leonardo Grosso della Rovere (1518-1520)
  • Andrea della Valle (1520-1534)
  • Paolo Emilio Cesi (1534-1537)
  • Alessandro Farnese (1537-1543)
  • Guido Ascanio Sforza (1543-1564)

  • Carlo Borromeo (1564-1572)
  • Alessandro Sforza (1572-1581)
  • Filippo Boncompagni (1581-1586)
  • Decio Azzolini (1586-1587)
  • Domenico Pinelli (1587-1611)
  • Michalangelo Tonti (1611-1622)
  • Giovanni Garzia Millini (1622-1629)
  • Antonio Barberini (1629-1671)
  • Giacomo Rospigliosi (1671-1684)
  • Felice Rospigliosi (1684-1688)
  • Philip Thomas Howard (1689-1694)
  • Benedetto Pamphili (1694-1699)
  • Giacomo Antonio Morigia (1699-1701)
  • Pietro Ottoboni (1702-1730)
  • Ludovico Pico de Mirandola (1730-1743)
  • Girolamo Colonna di Sciarra (1743-1763)
  • Marcantonio Colonna (1763-1793)
  • Giovanni Francesco Albani (1793-1803)
  • Antonio Cardinal Despuig y Dameto (28 December 1803 – 2 May 1813)
  • Giovanni Cardinal Gallarati Scotti (1814 – 6 October 1819)
  • Annibale Francesco Cardinal Della Genga (10 February 1821 – 28 September 1823)
  • Benedetto Cardinal Naro (1 January 1824 – 6 October 1832)
  • Carlo Cardinal Odescalchi (1832 – 21 November 1834)
  • Giuseppe Cardinal Sala (11 December 1838 – 23 August 1839)
  • Luigi Cardinal del Drago (29 August 1839 – 28 April 1845)
  • Costantino Cardinal Naro (24 April 1845 – 21 September 1867)
  • Gustav Cardinal von Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst (15 July 1878 – 30 October 1896)
  • Vicenzo Cardinal Vannutelli (16 December 1896 – 9 July 1930)
  • Bonaventura Cardinal Cerretti (16 July 1930 – 8 May 1933)
  • Angelo Cardinal Dolci (22 May 1933 – 13 September 1939)
  • Alessandro Cardinal Verde (11 October 1939 – 29 March 1958)
  • Carlo Cardinal Confalonieri (16 November 1959 – 25 February 1973)
  • Luigi Cardinal Dadaglio (15 December 1986 – 22 August 1990)
  • Ugo Cardinal Poletti (17 January 1991 – 25 February 1997)
  • Carlo Cardinal Furno (29 September 1997 – 27 May 2004)
  • Bernard Cardinal Law (27 May 2004 - present)

See also


  1.  Ott, Michael (1913). "Our Lady of the Snow". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 2008-12-27. 
  2. Major Basilica of St. Mary Major, St. Mary Major Basilica, Dedication of St. Mary Major Basilica, Boston Magazine. Other names in the Italian language are Basilica di Santa Maria della Neve and Basilica Liberiana, in English Our Lady of the Snow and the Liberian Basilica. In Latin it is called Basilica Sanctae Mariae or Mariae Majoris or ad Neves, that is the Basilica of Saint Mary or of Mary Major or of the Snows.
  3. Basilicas
  4. The Benedict XVI’s theological act of renouncing the title of "Patriarch of the West" has a consequence that the basilica changed its name to become the Papal basilica of Saint Mary Major, as its official websites states.
  5. "History of the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore". Vatican City: Basilica Papale Santa Maria Maggiore. Retrieved 2008-12-28. 
  6. Margaret R. Miles, "Santa Maria Maggiore's Fifth-Century Mosaics: Triumphal Christianity and the Jews" The Harvard Theological Review 86.2 (April 1993:155-175), "Santa Maria Maggiore and its legend", pp 157-59
  7. Or 358 (Miles 1993:157).
  8. Paul Joannides, "The Colonna Triptych by Masolino and Masaccio," Arte Cristiana no 728 (1988:339-46).
  9. Miles 1993:158.
  10. Roloff Beny and Peter Gunn, The Churches of Rome (New York) 1981:106.
  11. Rhoda Eitel-Porter, "Artistic Co-Operation in Late Sixteenth-Century Rome: Sistine Chapel in S. Maria Maggiore and the Scala Santa" The Burlington Magazine (1997). 452-462.
  12. Sources: Gaetano Moroni, Dizionario di erudizione storico-ecclesiastica da S. Pietro sino ai nostri giorni, vol. XII, Tipografia Emiliana, Venezia, 1840 - 1861, p. 129-135; the respective biogrphical entries on Essay of a General List of Cardinals by Salvador Miranda; and G. Ferri, Le carte dell'Archivio Liberiano dal secolo X al XV, Archivio della Societa Romana di storia patria, vol. 27 (1904), p. 147-202 and 441-459; vol.28 (1905), p. 23-39; vol. 30 (1907), p. 119-168
  13. Archpriest Pietro Sasso is commonly identified with contemporary cardinal Pietro Sasso of S. Pudenziana (1206-1218/19). However, this identification remains uncertain because the only document which mentions this archpriest (dated July 3, 1212) makes no reference to his cardinalate, cf. Ferri in ASRSP, vol. 28, p. 24
  14. Cardinal Pietro Capocci (died 1259) is mentioned in the majority of the catalogs of archpriests of Liberian Basilica but the documents from the archive of the Basilica, published by Ferri in ASRSP, vol. 27, p. 34-39 and vol. 30, p. 119, give no support for this affirmation. Document dated March 19, 1244 mentions Astor (or Aston) as archpriest, documents between February 13, 1247 and October 1, 1255 mention archpriest without mentioning his name but also without indicating his cardinalate, and on May 28, 1258 Romano was archpriest of the Basilica; the latest document mentions also cardinal Pietro Capocci but makes no reference to his occupation of that post. If he was really an archpriest under Innocent IV, he must have later resigned, but it seems more likely that this statement resulted from a confusion.

External links

Template:Rome landmarks

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